Art has always been a way of telling the stories of the unheard. What I love about any art form is the ability to make a change, and how it can bring people together who would have otherwise never crossed paths. For this week’s Top Five Fridays, I will be highlighting celebrities, who’ve historically used their platforms to make a better world. Imagine a world where interracial marriages are illegal in 31 states, how being a part of the LGBTQ community equates to mental illness, and even being left-handed is considered demonic (true story ask ya, grandparents). Even in a society where all of this happens, plus more if you’re Black, we have so many examples of Black celebrities using their voices to make a change and defy the odds. These are people who didn’t care about their endorsements and refused money from places that loved Black entertainment, but not Black lives. Due to recent events on social media with some of our favorite artists spreading the absolute wrong message or no message at all when it comes to the social injustices of the Black community; I would like to give examples of those who are Black before they are rich. I would also like to add that these are the people who paved the way for those same celebrities who mock and disrespect the Black community in times of a crisis. What I find interesting now, more than ever, is that the celebrities I am about to list below were in a greater danger about being outspoken than any of your faves who are choosing not to be. These were not independent artists; these were not people who had someone in the industry to plug them. These were people who saw the world as a place bigger than themselves.
Diahann Carroll (1935-2019)
Diahann Carroll was an actress, singer, and model. She was very successful on Broadway and television during the 1950’s-up until her passing. She is known throughout multiple generations, 7 decades to be exact, for her roles in Porgy and Bess, Carmen, Dynasty, and Grey’s Anatomy just to name a few. She was the first African-American woman in television to not only play a non-stereotypical role but also OWN a percentage of her own show called Julia. She was the founder of the Celebrity Action Council, a women outreach and rehabilitation program for those who suffered from prostitution, drug, and alcohol use. She was the first of many and truly an inspiration to Black actresses.
Muhammad Ali (1942-2016)
Muhammad Ali was a boxer, philanthropist, and activist. Muhammad is known for being outspoken and charismatic. He was extremely vocal about his distaste for the Vietnam War, even serving five years in jail for his refusal to be deployed. He fought alongside Civil Rights Activists like Martin Luther King, as well as Malcolm X. Ali also traveled to a variety of African countries to provide medical care and supplies to those in need and was present for Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. After 9/11, he advocated for the Islamic community and spoke out about Islamophobia in American society. A force to be reckoned with!
Ruby Dee (1922-2014)
Ruby Dee was an actress, poet, screenwriter, journalist, and activist. Dee was a part of black actresses who were demanding roles that were not belittling and took part in the evolution of Black film. She was the first Black woman to play a leading role in the American Shakespeare Festival and became the first black woman to appear regularly on a sitcom. She often spoke about the inequalities of black crew members who were barely hired or not hired at all. Off-air, she was a member of Congress of Racial Equality, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the NAACP! Her efforts and contributions to Black film will live on forever. She even starred in Spike Lee’s earlier work, “Do The Right Thing.”
Katherine Dunham (1909-2006)
Katherine Dunham was a dancer, choreographer, author, educator, anthropologist, and social activist. If you’re a dancer, you probably know of her from learning about the Dunham Technique. A pioneer, to say the least! Dunham was one of the first black women to attend the University of Chicago to receive a bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in anthropology. She founded the Negro Dance Group in Chicago, her very first dance school, and performed in various venues around Chicago. In 1944 she rented Caravan Hall, Isadora Duncan’s studio in New York, and opened the K.D. school of Arts and Research. In 1945 she moved and opened the most famous Dunham School at 220 W 43rd Street in New York. Katherine Dunham was an advocate for racial equality, refusing to perform at segregated venues and using her performances to depict discrimination. She was politically active on both domestic and international rights issues and made national and international headlines by staging a hunger strike of 47 days in 1993 at the age of 82 to protest for Haitian immigrants!
Harry Belafonte (1929- present)
Harry Belafonte is an actor, singer, songwriter, and activist. I personally know him for his role in Carmen Jones, but many know him from the long list of talents and how much of an asset he is to the black entertainment business. Coming from Jamaica to Harlem in 1939, he was moved by forces like Paul Robeson and Dr. DuBois as they shared their ideas about this country. So, by the time he became an artist, he was already on a mission to change. He was the first black producer of a television show called, “A Night with Belafonte.” He was appointed by John F. Kennedy as a cultural advisor for the Peace Corps for which Belafonte participated for five years. Did yall know he helped produce “We Are the World?” Yeah, I didn’t either, but maybe because it’s before my time. These are just a few of his accomplishments outside of his contribution to the Civil Rights Movement.
I could go on for days sharing the stories of each of these individuals, but we would need a history class! I’m a history nerd, so I hope you enjoyed this small lesson about impact. These people did not have to go out of their way to make this world a better place, but they saw an error that needed to be fixed and they did not do it alone! The importance of knowing your purpose and knowing how to use it is needed now moreso than ever. Ciao, Bellas!